Relief for Leiden


The Seige of Leiden

Perhaps no people suffered more in the struggle for liberty of conscience than did those of the Low Countries, the area corresponding to the modern nation of the Netherlands. Unlike the German states which were a loose coalition held together by their fear of the Turks; and even though subject to the emperor, retained a degree of their sovereignty as independent states, the Low Countries were directly under the control of the King of Spain. As a result, there was nothing standing between them and the Spanish hatred of the Reformation.

In the late sixteenth century, the Northern provinces began a struggle for independence from the Spanish rule and one of the most famous chapters in that story is the siege of Leiden.

Leiden was situated on a low plain covered with gardens, fruitful orchards, and rich pasture lands. The Rhine River, as it approached its walls, flowed in small streams through the city, making it a miniature Venice. At the time of its siege, the city was surrounded by a deep moat and a strong wall that was flanked with strong fortification. A city of importance, its standing or falling would to a great extent determine the fate of Holland in the conflict in which it was engaged.

The first blockade was initially begun in the winter of 1574 but was temporarily lifted when the Spanish troops were withdrawn to defend the frontier from an attack by Count Louis. After his defeat and the subsequent mutiny in the Spanish army had been crushed, the Spaniards returned to resume the siege. At the time, there were scarcely any soldiers within the city, other than the municipal guard.

The defense of the town was entrusted to Jean van der Does, Lord of Nordwyck. Does was an ardent patriot and he breathed his own heroic spirit into the citizens of Leiden. The women as well as men worked day and night upon the walls to strengthen them against the Spanish guns. Taking stock of the provisions remaining in the city, they arranged for an economical plan of distribution. Earlier atrocities committed by Spanish arms in their conquest had instilled in the Dutch an abhorrence of the Spaniards, giving them the resolve to die rather than surrender to an enemy with the instinct of a fiend.

Prior to the opening of hostility, Philip sought to steal from them by stratagem the victory he found so difficult to attain by force of arms. In Brussels, and in the king’s name, Don Louis de Requesens published a general amnesty to the Netherlanders on condition that they attend the mass and receive absolution from a priest. However, virtually all the clergy and many of the leading citizens were excepted from this pardon. " 'Pardon!' exclaimed the indignant Hollanders, 'before we can receive pardon we must first have committed offense. We have suffered wrong, not done it; and now the wrongdoer comes, not to sue for, but to bestow forgiveness! How grateful ought we to be!' " Wylie, History of Protestantism, vol. 2, 106. As for the matter of the mass, Philip could not have but known that to ask them to submit on this point was to require them to surrender him the victory, as there was scarcely a native of Holland who was still Catholic. Speaking for them, William of Orange declared, "As long as there is living a man left in the country, we will contend for our liberty and our religion." Ibid.

For the next two months, the citizens of Leiden manned the walls, keeping at bay a host that had risen to 10,000. By the end of this time, the provisions had failed and the inhabitants were facing starvation.

In the meantime, William of Orange, succumbing to exhaustion from almost ceaseless toil, lay stricken with fever at the point of death. Despite his illness, he continued to issue orders from his sickbed. As he had no force at his disposal that was of sufficient strength to enable him to break through the Spanish lines, carrying supplies to the starving city, he determined to engage the assistance of a more terrible weapon than cannon or armies—he would summon the ocean against the Spanish.

He proposed to cut the dikes, allowing the sea to reclaim the country. Though the loss would be great, it would be recoverable; whereas the country taken over by the Spanish might be lost forever. In this desperate situation, William’s arguments prevailed and the States adopted his plan.

With perseverance, the work was quickly completed but it failed to produce the expected results. The sea that had been so reluctant to give up the land when the inhabitants sought to keep it out, now displayed an unwillingness to overflow the country. Strong, northeasterly winds, prevailing that year longer than usual, beat back the tides, lowering the ocean level, thus preventing its overflowing the land. At great labor and expense, a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats with mounted guns had been built; but as the flood lay only a few inches over the land, unless it should rise much higher, William’s plan for relieving Leiden would surely fail.

Something bordering on panic seized the besiegers when they realized the plan that William was contemplating and saw this new and terrible threat advancing toward them. When, however, the waters appeared to be stayed, their fear subsided and mocking jeers took its place. That which had at first seemed so fearful, now appeared contemptible to them.

In the city of Leiden, despondency took the place of elation. Daily the watchers climbed the towers and scanned the horizon with hopeful eyes to see if perhaps the ocean might be coming to their aid. For seven weeks the city had been without bread, and the suffering was great. In addition to suffering from hunger, the burden of pestilence was added. Already reduced to skeletons, the people had no strength to resist this new attack and each passing hour added to the number of men and women dropping in the streets. Amid the dismal scene, only one passion still prevailed—resistance to the Spaniards. It was the victory of faith over despair.

Though the answer tarried, Heaven was not unmindful of the suffering city. On the first of October, the strong fall winds, so long delayed, gave signs of their approach. That night a wind sprang up from the northwest, forcing the rivers back into their channels. After blowing for some hours in that direction, they changed direction; and coming from the southwest, they increased in their fury, driving the water before it. Like a mighty giant that had just been loosed, the waters rushed over the dikes. At midnight on the second of October, the flotilla of relief vessels was on its way. They had not gone far, however, when they were stopped by a half submerged Spanish fort whose occupants, though terrified by the rising sea, were still able to offer battle. Though the Spanish fought desperately, it was without success. They were pursued on the dikes and fired on from the boats. Those who managed to escape the guns and swords of the fleet were drowned in the advancing sea and in all, some 1,500 Spanish died. The booming of the cannon told the citizens of Leiden that relief was now on the way.

The fleet continued until it had advanced to within two miles of the walls of Leiden. Here, about a mile from the city was Lammen, the strongest of the Spanish forts. Reconnaissance revealed it to be well above the water and strongly defended. The Dutch admiral was hesitant to attack it. The citizens of Leiden, seeing what was taking place, understood the difficulty. By means of a carrier pigeon, it was arranged that by a combined assault at dawn, an effort would be made to take the fort.

Night fell, and seldom was there a blacker night. Suddenly, at midnight, a terrible crash was heard. The cause of so ominous a sound, no one could conjecture. Darkness gave terror and mystery to every occurrence. Following the crash, a strange but equally unexplainable phenomenon appeared. A line of lights was seen in the darkness issuing from Lammen and moving over the face of the sea. All waited for the coming of day to explain the happenings of the night.

The next morning it was discovered that a large portion of the walls of Leiden had fallen during the night, causing the noise that gave such alarm. The Spaniards, had they known, might have entered the city, even at this last hour, and massacred its inhabitants. Instead of this, believing the terrible sound to have been the enemy rushing to attack them, they fled by lamplight when no man pursued. Instead of the cannonade which was expected to be opened against the formidable fort, the fleet sailed past the now silent guns and Leiden was relieved.

Leiden Relieved

The citizens of Leiden made it their first duty to offer thanks for their deliverance. They realized that despite their own heroism and the valor of their rescuers, they would have fallen had not God's mighty wind brought up the ocean and overwhelmed their foes.

The series of wonders was closed with yet another miracle. The whole vast plain from Rotterdam to Leiden was under water. What time, labor, and expense would be required to recover the land could only be speculated. The very next day, however, the wind shifted to the northeast and, blowing with great violence, again blew the waters of the sea back. Within a few days the land was bare. He, who with His mighty hand had brought up the ocean, also rolled it back.

(It is interesting to note that it was in Leiden that the Pilgrims found a hospitable refuge when they fled the religious intolerance and persecution in England, prior to finding a home in the New World.)

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